In the Wolf's Mouth
Clockwise, from top left: At 32, Bryan Mark Rigg has already earned his doctorate from Cambridge and conducted groundbreaking research into the lives of the Jewish soldiers who served in Hitler's armed forces; blond-haired, blue-eyed Werner Goldberg, who kept his Jewish heritage a secret, was presented in Nazi propaganda as "The Ideal German Soldier"; Luftwaffe General Helmut Wilberg, declared Aryan by Hitler in 1935 even though he was partly Jewish; General Gotthard Heinrici, far left, meeting Hitler, who awarded Heinrici's children and wife, who had Jewish ancestors, the "German blood certificate"; soldiers taking an oath instituted in 1934 swearing allegiance to Hitler. Mischlinge who refused to repeat the oath because they had Jewish relatives ended up in jail.
Top left: Mark Graham
When the train pulled into the station, Bryan Mark Rigg wrestled his bicycle onto the platform, balanced a rucksack stuffed with a video camera, laptop and tripod on his back and started pedaling through the German countryside. He had 70 miles to cover before dark. The Yale student had learned that Alexander Stahlberg, a former German soldier who lived on the grounds of a castle near Gartow, was willing to talk to him. "But you better hurry," the elderly Stahlberg said. "I've got one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel."
Rigg had moved to Germany in 1994 to learn the language and research his senior essay. But the Arlington student's journey meant much more than a grade: He'd become obsessed with tracking down veterans of the Wehrmacht, Hitler's armed forces. And the 23-year-old student wasn't looking for just any old veterans. He was searching for the Mischlinge, men who'd survived "in the mouth of the wolf," as one soldier put it. The word, meaning half-breeds or mongrels and first applied to the offspring of white Germans and black Africans in the colonies, referred to a group of soldiers who'd straddled a chasm of contradiction: They were deemed part-Jewish by Nazi racial laws but had fought on the Führer's side.
Historians knew such men had served in Hitler's forces. But Rigg's professors at Yale told him he was wasting his time, that there were so few they were of little historical significance.
Rigg believed these eminent scholars were wrong.
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Werner Goldberg, a blond-haired, blue-eyed half-Jew once held up by the Nazis as "the ideal German soldier," had told him about Stahlberg, who'd served as adjutant to Field Marshal Erich von Manstein. Some suspected Manstein was a Mischling himself, even though he'd given a notorious order calling for "the destruction of the Jewish-Bolshevik system." Rigg knew he had to act immediately. The veterans of World War II were dying off; he couldn't let anything get in the way of his quest to capture the stories of the remaining Mischlinge.
Certainly not money. Rigg had been living in Germany on peanut butter and cheap food he bought in Turkish markets. And not the setting sun on this December day.
As he pedaled furiously toward Stahlberg's home, even three layers of clothes couldn't protect against the cold. The bicycle's headlamp was broken, and he still had miles to go when the pavement turned into a dirt road. In the dark, his bike slammed into a pothole, flipping the 6-foot-2 Rigg and his pack over the handlebars.
An hour later, he arrived at Stahlberg's door bruised and covered with dirt. A tall, polished man in a nice suit, white hair slicked back, answered his knock. "What happened to you?" he asked. After Rigg explained, Stahlberg said, "You probably want to take a shower."
That night, video camera rolling, Rigg would record Stahlberg's recollections of a conversation he'd had with Manstein early in the war while the two played chess.
Stahlberg told his superior he'd heard that 100,000 Jews had been murdered by killing squads in Manstein's area of responsibility as the German front advanced. Manstein didn't respond.
"Dear Field Marshal, I feel the need to tell you this because I'm of Jewish descent myself," Stahlberg said. His great-grandfather had been a Jew, a fact Stahlberg had kept secret.
Manstein paused. "That's very interesting," he said. He mentioned that his family tree included a rabbi. Then he turned his attention back to the chess board.
When Stahlberg pressed Manstein about the huge numbers of Jews being slaughtered, Manstein fixed him with a stare.
"Do you really believe that?" the field marshal said.
Stahlberg said he did.
"Well, if this really happened," Manstein said, "they're only Jews."
Manstein's son later told Rigg he'd found no evidence of a Jew in the family tree; he figured that the field marshal was simply making a macabre joke. Stahlberg, however, believed Manstein meant what he said. During interviews spread over several days, Stahlberg would describe for Rigg his life as a Mischling, explaining to him the inner workings of the Wehrmacht.
Three weeks later the old soldier died.
By the end of that year in Germany, Rigg had found about 200 Mischlinge veterans. The view that they were an oddity--few in number, of little consequence--would soon crumble. Rigg, now 32 and a professor with the online American Military University and an adjunct professor at Southern Methodist University, estimated that as many as 150,000 Mischlinge served in the Wehrmacht in his controversial book, Hitler's Jewish Soldiers: The Untold Story of Nazi Racial Laws and Men of Jewish Descent in the German Military, published in 2002 by the University Press of Kansas.
"I had documented hundreds of people," Rigg says, "and I knew that there were thousands. Some were very high-ranking officers--colonels, generals, people who had a significant impact on the outcome of the war." One was Field Marshal Erhard Milch, the equivalent of a five-star general, who ran the Luftwaffe. Another was half-Jew Luftwaffe General Helmut Wilberg, who developed the operational tactics of blitzkrieg.
Their often-tragic stories illustrated the effects of the Nuremburg law passed in 1935 for the "protection of German blood." It defined full Jews--at least three Jewish grandparents--and created two new "racial" castes: half-Jews (two Jewish grandparents) and quarter-Jews (one Jewish grandparent). Though a quarter-Jew might have been raised as a Lutheran, by Nazi standards he was Jewish. The pseudo-racial designations were all part of Hitler's frenzied hunt for "hidden Jews."
Mischlinge, Hitler proclaimed, were the products of "unholy unions," with "the vices of the parents revealed in the sickness of the children," Rigg says. They were "monstrosities halfway between man and ape," subject to punishment for sleeping with Aryans, a crime the Nazis called "race defilement."
"Full Jews" were prevented from joining the Wehrmacht even if they considered themselves Christian, though some served with false papers. But at the beginning of World War II, half-Jews and quarter-Jews were subject to the draft, though they could not serve as officers or NCOs. As the war dragged on and Hitler needed a scapegoat, even half-Jews who'd performed bravely in battle were dismissed from the service. Quarter-Jews were forced to provide documents going back generations--for those in the SS, to 1750--in order to be "Aryanized" and thus protected from being sent to forced labor and concentration camps.
In German archives Rigg found evidence that Hitler would scrutinize these documents, perusing photos for stereotypical features such as large noses and ears before approving or denying the Aryanization requests. Rigg unearthed one document listing 77 high-ranking officers with Jewish ancestors who had been declared "of German blood." There were undoubtedly many more.
The Nazi racial laws compelled some Germans to take extreme measures. In a famous case, Field Marshal Milch's mother, a Gentile woman married to a full Jew, went to the authorities and swore that an Aryan uncle, not her husband, was the father of their six children. Thus Milch was an Aryan. "So they said OK," Rigg says. "Marrying a Jew wasn't OK, but incest was."
In his quest to find and record the stories of the Mischlinge, Rigg had stumbled onto something of genuine historical importance. But his research--and his book--have not been received with unanimous praise. Hitler's Jewish Soldiers elicited protests from scholars who argued that the veterans were not Jewish at all and that Rigg's numbers were overblown. (Rigg points out that even according to rabbinic law, which traces Judaism through the maternal line, there were thousands of Jews in the Wehrmacht.) Some claimed that his book could fuel anti-Semitism. "They believe that people will say, 'See, Jews were killing themselves,'" Rigg says. "That's absurd."
Though the book points up troubling questions about religion, race and identity that plague the Jewish community even today, Rigg has proved a popular speaker at Jewish book fairs and community centers all over the country. Like a big puppy always falling over its own feet, Rigg disarms, then charms. "Bryan has one enormous gift," says Dr. Jonathon Steinberg, a professor at Cambridge University, where Rigg earned his doctorate. "He radiates a kind of natural goodness."
As Rigg bicycled across Germany to interview Mischlinge, that trait prompted old soldiers not only to invite the young American into their homes, but to give him their military documents, Iron Crosses, papers signed by Hitler, photos, diaries and even a ceremonial sword. The papers, documenting the service of about 1,700 men, now form the Bryan Mark Rigg collection at the Federal Military Archives of Germany in Freiburg. The story of Rigg's work has been made into a docudrama, starring Rigg as himself, called Soldiers With a Half Star, which has been screened in a few cities in Germany to positive reviews. Based on a screenplay by journalist Heike Mundzeck, the film will be shown on German TV and in U.S. theaters later this year.
Even one of the scholars who'd initially doubted Rigg's quest, Dr. Henry Turner, a renowned professor of modern German history at Yale, acknowledges the significance of Hitler's Jewish Soldiers. "His is now the basic book on the subject," Turner says. "People will use it with reservations, but they'll have to use it."
All of this is remarkable stuff for a young man once labeled learning-disabled, a "potential eighth-grade dropout" whose Yale adviser still doesn't think he's cut out for academia. But Rigg's journey to find the Mischlinge ultimately became a search for his own significance, his own identity--one that would bring to light a secret of his own.
Marilee Rigg was worried. Her first son, David, was a calm, quiet child. But Bryan, born on March 16, 1971, was in constant motion by the age of 6 months. He'd repeatedly bang his head when frustrated or trying to sleep. "I did that until I was 13 or 14," Rigg says. "I had an incredibly strong neck because of that."
It was the first of many childhood problems. A speech impediment made it difficult for other kids to understand him, which in turn made Bryan frustrated and aggressive. Bryan was an "obstinate, negative child who has been difficult to discipline or reason with," according to an evaluation done at the Child Study Center in Fort Worth when he was 3. "They said he was a mild case of hyperactivity," Marilee says. "It didn't seem mild to me."
At Pantego Christian Academy in Arlington, Bryan failed first grade--twice. "They can't control me in Sunday school," Rigg says. "My parents are getting all this negative feedback. Their kid's a freak, a failure. He's not going to amount to anything."
Starpoint, a lab school for the learning-disabled at Texas Christian University, would be his salvation. The director was Laura Lee Crane, and one of his teachers was Mary Stewart--women Rigg calls his "saving angels." (Tragically, Crane was kidnapped and murdered several weeks ago. A couple allegedly robbed her for drug money.)
"Bryan was a scrawny, pitiful little thing," says Stewart, who now lives in Kansas. "When he came to me, he couldn't read. He couldn't write. He had given up. I had to make sure he saw a light at the end of the tunnel. In the classroom, everything I did with him was about being successful."
Rigg thrived in Starpoint's highly structured environment, where there were no report cards and thus no failure. "I learned that morale and attitude played a huge role," Rigg says. "You learned for learning's sake, because it's a wonderful adventure. I learned at Starpoint I was a contrarian. Tell me I can't do something, and I immediately have to do it."
By the end of the year, Bryan was reading at the third- or fourth-grade level. Mainstreamed into a private Christian school, his grades slowly improved. Though ill-coordinated as a child, by high school he'd morphed into an athlete. Rigg was all-state in basketball, football and drama at Fort Worth Christian, graduating in 1990 with honors.
His football credentials--and not his mediocre SAT scores--attracted the attention of colleges. But Rigg was determined to attend an Ivy League school like his father, who he saw only every two weeks; his parents had divorced when he was 12. He ended up getting rejected by Yale, the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton. Instead of giving up his dream, Rigg took the advice of a coach to do a postgraduate year at a prep school and reapply.
At Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, Rigg became captain of the football team. Asked by his coach to say a prayer, Rigg ended with an emphatic "in Jesus' name we pray."
Later, several teammates pulled him aside. Explaining they were Jewish, one boy asked, "Would you mind ending your prayer in a different way?"
For the first time in his life, Rigg had encountered what Hitler would have called a "full Jew."
As a deeply religious teenager, Rigg had spent his summers doing Christian mission trips all over the world. In 1986, at age 15, Rigg entered the Teen Missions International program, where the students learned skills like bricklaying and roofing, as well as some of the customs and language of the country they'd be serving. Rigg did 10-week missions in France, the Bahamas, England, South Africa, Bulgaria and Romania, building houses, teaching Bible classes, even performing as a mime with a street drama group. "We had such good intentions," Rigg says, "but on the mission trips I started realizing our arrogance in telling people, 'What you believe is wrong, and we're here to tell you the truth.'"
His Jewish teammates' simple request prompted him to re-examine his Christianity. "I got a lot of good from my church teaching," Rigg says, "but also stamped into my mind's eye was this intolerance for people who believed otherwise. I started learning more about the Bible. I realized how little most Christians knew about the Bible and the time period in which Jesus lived. And that really shook my faith."
The Berlin theater was dark and empty when Rigg stepped inside. As the film began, he saw an old man enter and linger at the back while his eyes adjusted. Rigg introduced himself and helped the man find a seat; his name was Peter Millies. As they watched, Millies translated the German dialogue for the young American. Like Rigg's year at Starpoint, this chance encounter would change his life.
It was the summer of 1992, between his freshman and sophomore years at Yale. The first year had been rocky. Though Rigg made the Yale football team, an injury ended his sports career before it began. Majoring in pre-med, Rigg wasn't prepared for the academic rigors of the Ivy League.
He spent his first college summer studying language at the Goethe Institute in Berlin and researching his mother's family background. He knew little more than that his great-great-grandparents had emigrated from Germany in 1864. One weekend, Rigg made a side trip to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where 200,000 Jews, Gypsies and Soviet POWs had been imprisoned and 30,000 died. Overwhelmed, Rigg wanted to know: "How could this happen? Why did this happen? Could it happen again?"
When Rigg asked his German teacher for a movie to hone his language skills, the instructor, knowing his pupil's interest in the Holocaust, recommended Europa Europa. It's the true story of Solomon Perel, a German teenager who survives the Nazi regime by posing as an orphan. He ends up in a Russian youth home. When the home is bombed, he becomes a translator for the Wehrmacht, is adopted by a tank commander and later joins the Hitler Youth. By turns sad, ironic, funny and tragic, the movie shows the confusion and fear of "hiding in the mouth of the wolf."
After the movie, Millies confided that the story bore some similarities to his own life. The two men sat in a pub until 4 a.m. as Millies talked about his experiences as a quarter-Jew in Hitler's military, stories he'd never told his own family.
Peter and his younger brother Walter had been drafted in 1940 and 1941. Peter had been sent to Russia as a radio operator. Rigg listened as the old soldier described the filthy conditions and how the bitter cold froze their urine before it hit the ground. But Millies' biggest fear was that nearby Waffen-SS troops would discover his heritage and shoot him. In the 1930s, as Hitler rose to power, his mother had falsified their identity papers to hide that his grandfather was a Jew.
"At the end, he broke down and cried, especially when he talked about his brother dying," Rigg says. In 1943, Walter had been decapitated in an artillery barrage.
As they left the pub, Rigg hugged the old man and promised, "I'm not going to forget you." Rigg went to his rented room and wrote five pages of notes about the meeting. He wanted to know more.
That summer, while searching courthouses in small towns around Leipzig for information about his family, Rigg made a startling discovery: According to their birth certificates, his great-great-grandparents who immigrated to America in the mid-1800s were Mosaich. The town historian translated: "This means Jewish."
"Here I am in the middle of Germany," Rigg says, "the heartland of Nazism. Why didn't I know about this? Why did my family reject Judaism? It hit me really hard."
Back at Yale for the fall semester, Rigg met an Orthodox rabbi who used the documents to map out Rigg's family tree. "You're Jewish," the rabbi told him. The rabbi explained that according to Halakah, rabbinical law developed over the millennia, Judaism was passed through the maternal line.
"If my father was a rabbi and my mother was Gentile, would I be a Jew?" Rigg asked. The rabbi's answer: "No."
His mother and grandmother were shocked to hear of Rigg's discovery, which meant that they, too, were Jews. "They didn't believe it," Rigg says. "They were somewhat concerned and upset. Not because they are anti-Semitic but because Jews have so many problems in the world." One relative, a rancher, told Rigg if his grandfather knew what he'd discovered, "he'd be turning in his grave."
Rigg began forming plans to return to Germany the next summer to learn more about Millies and his own heritage. On winter break in 1993-'94, Rigg spent six weeks on scholarship at an Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem. "I learned more about the Bible studying with the two rabbis there than I had in my entire life," Rigg says. That spring, Rigg switched from pre-med to English and history. "I started asking professors if they knew anything about Jews in the Wehrmacht," Rigg says. "They said, 'We've never heard of this before. It didn't happen.'"
Rigg approached Professor Turner, author of German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler. "Bryan said he wanted to do a senior essay on Jewish descendants who served in the German army," Turner says. "I hadn't read anything about this before. I thought he wouldn't find very much and be frustrated." Turner told Rigg he needed to study serious German history instead of "chasing after curious anomalies which will not add anything to our understanding of the Third Reich."
But Rigg wouldn't be dissuaded. That impressed Turner. "Bryan's not the sort of student I'm used to seeing," Turner says. "Most of the students are very cautious and feeling their way. They need a lot of help. He was so definite that he knew exactly what he wanted to do and confident that he could do it."
Rigg decided to take a year away from Yale to pursue his research. He could be seen between classes wearing headphones, listening to German Berlitz tapes.
Men like Millies were already in their 80s. Rigg was in a race against time.
As an Unteroffizier (Corporal), Robert Czempin had lost a leg in battle and had been decorated with the Iron Cross and Silver Wound Badge. One night in 1943, Czempin awoke to hear his Jewish grandfather standing over him in the darkness, reciting the Jewish Kaddish prayer for the dead. Czempin pretended to sleep. The next morning he learned that his grandfather had left his bedside, written a note and swallowed poison.
"If I had not killed myself, your worries would've only increased," his grandfather wrote, "and you would've faced unimaginable tortures. Believe me, this is best for all of us. I'm old and this way I can die in my own bed. That's much better than to be driven to some horrible death by inhumane persons. This way, maybe a rabbi (if there is still a rabbi alive in Berlin) will say Kaddish at my grave. I've tried all my life to be an honorable person...Although it sounds very strange, I was more Prussian than Jew...However I did do my best to live by God's laws...The Nazis have almost taken everything I have...Think of your grandfather occasionally, who loved you dearly. God protect you!"
The Nazi pincers were closing around Mischlinge like Czempin. After the conquest of Poland, thousands of soldiers learned that their Jewish family members were being persecuted back home in Germany. Their complaints reached Hitler, who resolved the dilemma by ordering the discharge of all half-Jews. One such man, Werner Eisner, was deported to Auschwitz; his crime was sleeping with an Aryan. Eisner survived when an SS man saw his picture in uniform and pulled him out of a line for the gas chamber.
As the war continued and Hitler's Final Solution cranked its murderous mission into high gear, quarter-Jews also came under intense scrutiny. But it was proving more difficult to rid the Third Reich of Jews than Hitler had anticipated; German Jews had assimilated into society more than Jews in most other European countries and had a high rate of intermarriage. Many such families had strong traditions of military service.
During his year in Germany, Rigg often took night trains to arrive on time for morning interviews. He'd sleep in the train station, locking his bike and rucksack to his body. In the morning, he'd find a hotel with a public restroom, wash and put on a clean shirt. His record was seven interviews in one day. Over the course of his research, Rigg would interview 430 Mischlinge. He documented the military service of a total of 1,700, many of whom were now dead. Of those, 967 were half-Jews, 607 quarter-Jews and 97 full Jews in either the Wehrmacht or the Waffen-SS.
A friend had helped Rigg translate some of his early interviews, but soon, with only a slippery grasp of the language, Rigg was on his own. He asked a series of pre-written questions in German, unable to follow up. But at least it was on tape.
By the spring of 1995, based now in Freiburg, Rigg's German had improved dramatically. "A lot of people opened up to me because I had no agenda and I was curious about my own Jewish German background," Rigg says. "These people opened their hearts about being outcasts." For many, it was the first time they'd ever talked about their war experiences.
Some stories were heartbreaking. One veteran, who refused to let Rigg use his name, told of arriving home on leave to visit his Jewish grandmother. She didn't respond when he called. He noticed a funny smell. Entering the kitchen, he saw her corpse dangling from a rope. "No, no, no," he sobbed as he pulled her down and held her body in his arms. In a note, she apologized for causing him problems and for taking her own life.
Others were almost humorous. One subject, a half-Jew named Heinrich Hamberger, invited Rigg to a pub where members of his former unit met once a month. He told Rigg to say he was studying the military history of World War II but not to explain why he was interested in Hamberger's story; he'd never revealed his Jewish heritage to anyone.
That evening, as the old friends drank and shared stories, Rigg told Hamberger's commander that he'd heard of Mischlinge in the Wehrmacht. The commander nodded and took Rigg aside. "Don't tell Hamberger, but we know he's a Jew," the commander said. It hadn't mattered to his comrades-in-arms during the war, and it didn't today.
As Rigg heard such stories, he tried to put himself in the men's shoes. "People like to condemn these people from the get-go, that they're traitors," Rigg says. "But I tried to really understand it." What if his family had stayed in Germany and he had been forced to serve in the Wehrmacht?
Most Mischlinge told him they didn't feel guilty about their military service. "Many were conscripted. Most were between 18 and 25, and for some it was a survival technique." They told him they had no idea Jewish relatives were being systematically murdered. Late in the war, in fact, many Mischlinge were discharged and sent to forced labor camps. If they had suspected they were being sent to their deaths, Rigg says, they would have tried to escape.
The Mischlinge felt greater anguish about what they didn't do. "Many lost seven or eight relatives in the Holocaust," Rigg says. "They say, 'I should have known what was going on. I should have done this for my mother.'"
Just before Christmas 1995, Rigg appeared at the door of Professor Turner's office, 20 pounds lighter than he was when Turner had last seen him. Rigg dumped his rucksack on Turner's floor and began pulling out documents, some signed by Hitler.
"Now will you be my senior adviser?" Rigg asked.
By the time Stephanie Stelzer agreed to go on a date with Bryan Rigg, his campus legend at Yale was in full flower.
Everything about Rigg was larger than life--his muscles, his martial arts, his biking trips across Germany with a video camera. Still, though everyone on campus knew who he was, Rigg seemed mysterious. "He never slept," Stephanie says. "He had two jobs. He took twice as many courses as I did. Forty percent of them were independent study. He was determined to get his money's worth out of Yale."
Stephanie, the daughter of a Manhattan heart surgeon, remembers her initial impression of Rigg in an introductory German class in 1993. "It was a small room, and he was loud," she says. "He was a jock, all muscle. He was always raising his hand, and he never knew the right answer."
Rigg recalls his impression of Stephanie: a tall, beautiful blonde who constantly cracked her knuckles and corrected the teacher. But Rigg would later notice that Stephanie was one of the few Yalies who didn't snub him when he was doing his campus job. Rigg worked at Silliman College as a "recycling coordinator." In other words, he took out the trash.
One night in January 1996, Stelzer's roommate said she was meeting the legendary Rigg about conducting a women's self-defense class and asked if she knew what he looked like. "Just look for Aahh-nold," Stelzer joked.
That evening, when her roommate brought "Aahh-nold" back to their room, Stelzer and Rigg ended up talking for two hours. She'd spent six months in Germany studying language and was fascinated by his research. They had their first big date February 2; by March they were engaged.
Bulldog TV, a campus show on cable, aired a 20-minute story about the legend of Bryan Rigg that spring. It had started with the burglar.
In his sophomore year, Rigg's estranged father cut him off financially, and he had to move off campus. The dean of Silliman let Rigg store his belongings in a basement storage room. He'd come to campus, do his recycling job, shower, dress and go to class. But someone was stealing his clothes and other belongings from the storage room. Rigg and the dean had the only keys. Campus police said they could do nothing unless Rigg brought them evidence.
One dawn, Rigg heard the door opening and saw a man with a box cutter enter. Rigg jumped him and, using his self-defense techniques, "incapacitated him." Rigg dragged the bloodied and luckless perp--a custodian with 13 unauthorized keys--to the dean's house.
On Bulldog TV, students would describe Rigg as a combination of Sherlock Holmes and Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Meanwhile, Rigg was struggling to finish his senior essay on the Mischlinge. "It was very original and went far beyond the usual expectations for an undergraduate paper," Professor Turner says. "It was very unusual for someone to gather fresh evidence like that." Rigg's poor writing skills, however, caused both of them frustration. "I don't think I've ever spent as much time working with a student, helping him to get it into the English language," Turner says. "But he always went away and did what I told him to do. He was a worker."
Despite Rigg's efforts, Turner refused to recommend him for graduate study. "I'm very fond of Bryan," he says. "He knows this one thing better than anyone else on earth, but he's not really an intellectual or a historian. This goes back to his undergraduate career. He dropped out of my German history course because he was too busy. He was fixated on this one issue and the cases he interviewed."
In May 1996, Rigg graduated from Yale with more than 150 credits, far more than required, and received degrees in both English and history. Rigg also received the coveted Henry Fellowship, awarding him one year of graduate study in European history at either Cambridge or Oxford. His quest could continue.
"So, zeze are your Nazis!" said Dr. Arnold Paucker in his thick German accent, surveying documents Rigg had brought for his scrutiny. Paucker, director of the Leo Baeck Institute in London, was unimpressed. To him, the Mischlinge who'd served in the Wehrmacht were not Jews but persecutors of Jews. Rigg's efforts to enlist Paucker's help had failed, and the scholar would eventually become his harshest critic.
Rigg had moved to England and Cambridge in the fall of 1996, where he was supervised by Dr. Jonathon Steinberg, a prolific author and now chair of the history department at the University of Pennsylvania. "Bryan Rigg was like no other student I've had before or since," Steinberg says. "He was a man on a mission. It was something to do with his own deepest needs and desires. Meeting these people was the obsession. Cambridge is very flexible, so I set him loose."
Visiting Rigg's apartment, Steinberg was horrified to see Nazi-era documents stored in an upside-down twin bed frame partitioned with twine. Concerned that the documents be protected from fire, Steinberg arranged for them to be temporarily housed in the Churchill Archives.
Steinberg also encouraged Rigg to seek press coverage to stake out his area of research and to find Mischlinge veterans before they died. Steinberg contacted a reporter at the London Daily Telegraph, who wrote a front-page story. It was picked up by The Associated Press and followed by a story in the Los Angeles Times. While the stories yielded many Mischlinge sources, they had an unwanted side effect: Some historians began tagging him as a publicity hound, and others attacked the premise of his research. "I got the feeling that Paucker wished it had never come to light," Rigg says. "He just does not like that this is a chapter of history."
When Rigg began speaking to Jewish audiences, he encountered skepticism and at times hostility. But Rigg's charisma and good will usually won people over. "People learned my research was about Jewish identity," Rigg says, "about the Third Reich's approach to who is a Jew and who isn't."
His master's thesis focused on a dramatic story he'd discovered in his research: the rescue of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe Joseph Yitzak Schneersohn from Nazi-controlled Poland by an unlikely alliance of the American State Department, the Abwehr (Hitler's intelligence service) and a high-ranking Mischling officer named Ernst Bloch. Then Rigg decided to pursue a doctoral degree at Cambridge, living in Germany while he continued his research. Steinberg arranged for the transfer of his documents to the federal military archive in Freiburg, which gave him an office. Stephanie got a job with a company that had branches in the states.
During Christmas 1998, Bryan received a disturbing e-mail from Steinberg saying Rigg must immediately stop working on his dissertation. A German scholar had obtained a copy of Rigg's master's thesis and was accusing him of plagiarizing from his book about the rescue of Jews by a member of the Abwehr.
The Board of Graduate Studies at Cambridge took the charge seriously. Its investigation dragged out through 1999, sending Rigg into the deepest funk of his life. Feeling he'd failed the 430 men who entrusted him with their stories, Rigg spent a week at a friend's house on Antigua to think about his future and then called his wife to announce he wanted to get on with his life and join the Marines. It was slightly less far-fetched than it seems; Rigg's brother was a Marine pilot who'd served during the first Gulf War, and Bryan had participated in a 10-week program with the Israeli armed forces, believing it would make him a better military historian.
Even when he'd been exonerated of plagiarism--an independent expert said the dispute boiled down to sloppy footnoting, not deliberate theft of someone else's work-- Rigg opted to report for Marine Officer Candidate School at Quantico. But his hope of becoming a Marine pilot would end shortly after OCS when he injured his back falling on ice. After two surgeries, and to his disappointment, Rigg received a medical discharge from the Marines.
Rigg used the recovery time to finish his dissertation. His primary research wowed Steinberg and the other graders, but they sent back his first draft and asked him to include more secondary sources.
In January 2002, Rigg learned that his doctorate had been approved.
"Victory!" Rigg shouted, emerging from his study with arms raised.
"Victory!" mimicked Sophia, his daughter born in October 2000, pudgy arms held high.
"In my estimation, they were all guilty," says a man in Rigg's audience at the Dallas Jewish Community Center. After all, how could members of the Wehrmacht not have known about the death camps?
Gray heads nod around the room. Most of the 30 or so people in attendance at the JCC earlier this month are elderly; some survived the Holocaust. But another woman raises her hand to say she had two cousins who served in the Wehrmacht. She promises to bring Rigg information about them when she returns from a visit to Germany.
Hitler's Jewish Soldiers was published in 2002 with the help of Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust historian and the director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. Berenbaum had been impressed with Rigg's senior essay at Yale but strongly advised Rigg not to pursue the subject further. "I read in this area virtually everything written," Berenbaum says. "I thought he'd find a dozen, two dozen or three dozen, and that's all. That doesn't tell you an awful lot."
When Berenbaum read Rigg's doctoral dissertation, he was bowled over.
Rigg had labored over the book, sending chapters to experts for critique and painstakingly recrafting. The book was released to acclaim--and criticism, especially for the title. The publisher first had the word Jewish in quotation marks, Rigg says, but removed them on the advice of a historian who read the manuscript.
"The only thing I would fault him on was the numbers," Berenbaum says, referring to Rigg's assertion that up to 150,000 Mischlinge served in Hitler's military. "He'd written a serious and important work with important implications for our understanding of the Holocaust. It in essence tells us there were a whole range of other issues in carrying out the racial policy other than Nazi racial ideology. It enlivens our understanding even of Hitler's own understanding of racial purity. He's sitting in his office even at the end of the war to decide who is a Jew and who isn't."
Jewish identity today is still an explosive issue in Israel, Rigg says. It affects everything from marriages to burials to Israel's Law of Return. "If they didn't have the Palestinians to divert them," Rigg says, "then they would tear each other apart over this question."
Today, Rigg's life still involves research on the Mischlinge. His second book, The Rescue of Rebbe Schneersohn From Hitler's Europe 1939-1940, is scheduled to be published this fall by the Yale University Press. A third book will detail the lives of 25 Mischlinge veterans.
Last year, the Riggs moved to Dallas to be near their extended families. He toyed with switching careers, maybe to investment banking. They'd just bought a house and had a new baby boy. Then last fall, SMU invited Rigg to teach a course on the Holocaust. This semester he's teaching "The History of Modern Warfare" and "The History of God." One SMU student describes Rigg as intense and demanding but more accessible to students who want help than most lecturers.
Professor Turner describes Rigg as "endearing," but he also worries about Rigg's future as an academic. "I'm concerned that he's headed down a blind alley," Turner says. "All this is going to be exhausted at some point. Then what will he do?"
Despite his fascination with his Jewish background, Rigg says he never considered converting to Judaism. But he no longer identifies himself as a Christian. He's still searching.
"I don't know who I am," Rigg says. "I take comfort in that."
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